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Informant: Phillips asked me, friend to kill Roberts for money

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

YORK Julia Phillips offered $10,000 to a confidential informant, black-market plastic surgeon and admitted thief if he would kill former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, the man testified Friday.

During the most lively testimony of Phillips’ murder trial this week, Guy Blankenship told jurors that Phillips offered to pay him and a friend to kill Roberts, her longtime boyfriend.

Both refused, said Blankenship, who testified that Phillips bought prescription painkillers and anxiety drugs illegally from a drug dealer; that he witnessed arguments between Phillips, Roberts and her son, William Hunter Stephens; and that she inquired about hiring an already-accused murderer to kill Roberts three years ago.

Phillips was charged with murder in May 2010 for the strangulation killing three months earlier of Roberts, her decade-long boyfriend.

Prosecutors in opening arguments this week acknowledged that they have no direct evidence linking Phillips, 69, to the brutal slaying. They said she conspired with another person to kill Roberts, 79, because he threatened to end their relationship. Roberts had started to cut her off financially, and she stood to inherit $150,000 worth of property from Roberts.

Testimony on Thursday revealed that Roberts paid for her health benefits, dental work, utilities, credit cards and the store she managed in Gaffney, S.C.

He was found dead in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010, Phillips’ birthday. He had been hit over the head and strangled with a zip tie.

Phillips’ attorney, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, has claimed two men killed Roberts. Phillips herself told police that a Hispanic attacker grabbed her from behind, bound her with duct tape, dragged her behind a brick wall and put her in a fetal position before apparently hitting Roberts with a pipe and firing a gun. Prosecutors have relied on witnesses – mostly police – who have poked holes in Phillips’ inconsistent account of what happened.

Re-enactment questioned

Friday began much the same, with York Police Detective William Mumaw, the lead investigator on the case, explaining that police found no excess duct tape, scissors, guns or extra zip ties anywhere near Roberts’ body the night of the killing.

The statements Phillips gave police about her escape from duct tape were specific and “fine-tuned,” except when it came to actually describing her attacker, he said.

Those, he said, were “all over the board.”

Prosecutors played video showing Phillips participating in a re-enactment of the events of the night of Roberts’ death with Mumaw and a profiler from the State Law Enforcement Division.

Jurors watched as Phillips huddled on the ground and crawled into the fetal position, the way her attacker allegedly positioned her after dragging her behind the wall.

During the re-enactment, she gave police new details, saying her attacker told her to “shut up,” whereas before she said he barely talked aside from uttering “money” several times in a “foreign tongue.”

She told police that as she waited on the wet ground, she heard Roberts’ truck in the driveway. In other statements, she told police she managed to see the headlights of Roberts’ truck, though her eyes had been taped shut. The way she was positioned behind the wall is away from the driveway.

Phillips described the sound of a pipe as a “ping sound” that vibrated on the concrete. When she freed herself from the tape, she walked to her sports utility vehicle and saw Roberts as he lay dead on the ground.

In earlier statements to police, she said she did not see Roberts until she got into her truck and flashed her own headlights.

When police arrived, she asked them to pick Roberts off the ground, she told police during the re-enactment. But, police officers testified this week that Phillips never asked about Roberts in the hour she waited in the car while they were on the scene.

While recounting details of her attack during the re-enactment, Phillips stopped to heave and sob. In court on Friday, Phillips grabbed a tissue as Frederick’s wife and paralegal, Joi Frederick, rubbed her shoulders. But on Friday, Mumaw testified that “not once did I see tears” during the re-enactment.

Ten pieces of duct tape were used to bind Phillips, Mumaw said, and they had been applied to her body in a delicate and careful way – apparently not in a frenzy as most attackers would apply it. Police found no tape on the scene, nor did they find extra zip ties or a pair of scissors that might have been used to cut the tape.

They did find bullets, duct tape, an ax handle, a copy of a will, a billy club and prescription pill paperwork from Phillips’ Gaffney home a week after she had been arrested and charged with murder, he said.

On cross-examination from Frederick, Mumaw said investigators found an unknown person’s DNA on duct tape they took from Phillips and the zip tie used to strangle Roberts. Mumaw explained that police exhausted many leads for three years but were unable to find a second suspect. Police have said they believe someone helped Phillips murder Roberts but have not charged anyone else.

Frederick critiqued the warrant for Phillips’ arrest, implying that police used gunshot residue on the sleeves of Phillips’ blouse as probable cause to arrest her for Roberts’ murder.

Kris Hodge, the 13th Circuit assistant solicitor prosecuting Phillips, asked Mumaw if officers often fired their weapons in their cars or offices.

“Hopefully never,” Mumaw said.

The money trail

Renee Adkins, a branch manager for Wells Fargo bank in Rock Hill, testified that Phillips had only $1.62 in her checking account around the time Roberts died. She owed creditors $1,400.

Charles Patton, co-owner of a Gaffney drugstore, described Phillips as a “regular customer” who, over the span of eight months, paid more than $2,500 in out-of-pocket costs for prescription painkillers and heartburn medicine.

Tracy Brown, who worked as Roberts’ paralegal from 2007 to 2009 and helped him draft and later execute his will, said Phillips was upset the day of Roberts’ memorial service.

She wasn’t grieving for Roberts, Brown said; she was upset that police had left fingerprinting dust on her car and allowed ice cream she had bought to melt.

Murder-for-hire detailed

The most compelling testimony came in the afternoon when Blankenship took the stand.

Without much prodding from Hodge, he said Phillips asked how much an accused murderer would charge her to kill Roberts. That accused murderer, Blankenship said, had slit a woman’s throat and killed her boyfriend.

Blankenship owns an antique store and cafe across from Julia’s Inc., the boutique Phillips managed but Roberts owned. He said he witnessed confrontations between Roberts and Phillips’ son, Stephens, who was not supposed to be in the store.

Blankenship, a convicted thief with pending shoplifting and larceny charges in North Carolina, said Phillips offered him $10,000 to kill Roberts.

Though he participates in “many illegal activities,” such as teaching people how to write fraudulent checks, stealing for hire and performing black-market plastic surgery, Blankenship said, he refused to help Phillips.

His rules, he said: “Don’t mess with kids and don’t mess with old people, and one of them was an old person.”

Court is expected to resume on Tuesday, after jurors decided not to listen to testimony and evidence over the Labor Day weekend.

Phillips, a two-time cancer survivor suffering from fibromyalgia, according to statements she gave to police, will spend the weekend at the York County Detention Center after her bondsman elected to withdraw her bond.

“She’s hanging in there,” Frederick said after Cole dismissed court. “She’s in high spirits.”

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